Commentary Magazine

Cedars of Lebanon: A Defense of American Rights

Last month, on the occasion of the American Jewish Committee’s Half-Century Observance Conference (held at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City), this department offered an excerpt from the papers of Louis Marshall: Champion of Liberty, two volumes edited by Charles Reznikoff, with an introduction by Oscar Handlin. Sponsored by the American Jewish Committee (whose president Marshall was from 1912 until his death in 1929), the work appears this month under the imprint of the Jewish Publication Society.

Here we publish a second selection, an address (somewhat abridged) that Marshall delivered in New York City on January 19, 1911, to the twenty-second council of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. This speech deals with a matter about which Marshall was passionately concerned both as an American and a Jew: the refusal of the Czarist government to permit American citizens of Jewish descent to enter Russia. Marshall takes the stand that Russia’s discriminatory action was an insult not only to American Jews but to the sovereignty of the United States, and argues that America’s acquiescence in it constituted a betrayal of her most sacred principles. Indefatigable in his efforts to get this flagrant breach of international law corrected, Marshall wrote a letter on the subject to the editor of the New York Times as late as August 24, 1916. But only with the fall of the Czarist government in March 1917 was the problem disposed of.—ED.


The character of a nation is the reflex of the character of its citizens. If they are virtuous, virile, and self-respecting, the nation will of necessity possess the same qualities. If they have no pride in the honor and dignity of their citizenship, it inevitably follows that the national sense of honor is lacking, or falls below the ideal standard which should prevail. Whenever the citizens of a country as a mass fail to thrill in response to great achievements, or to resent a national insult, it must be due either to lack of information or to a want of that spirit by which great commonwealths have been created and preserved. Rome became a world power when, with conscious pride, its sons gloried in the declaration, “civis Romanus sum.” It fell when the members of the State ceased to respond to that magic phrase.

American citizenship has hitherto been regarded as a priceless treasure. Men have gladly given for it their lives and all their material possessions. It has meant to them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It has been to them a badge of honor and distinction, and the richest guerdon of all their hopes and aspirations. It has peopled the wilderness and lighted the torch of progress and civilization. It has challenged universal respect, and has gained for itself the good will of well nigh all the peoples. . . .

And yet there rests a stain on the honor of our Nation and on the integrity of American citizenship; for the passport issued by the State Department of the United States, bearing the great seal of our country, and which vouches for the citizenship of him to whom it is issued, is dishonored, rejected, and arbitrarily disregarded by the Russian government whenever the citizen by whom it is presented happens to be a Jew. It matters not if he be able to trace his ancestry to those who landed with Columbus, to those who were among the settlers who came to New York in 1655, to those who fought in the War of Independence. It matters not that none of their kith or kin ever was a subject of Russia. All are denied the privilege of entering its domain, though panoplied with the armor and the shield of American citizenship.

For more than thirty years this has been the declared policy of the Russian Government. Its discrimination against our citizens has been persistently and constantly avowed and acted upon. Men of every class have suffered the same ignominy and contumely. No man within the hearing of my voice who professes to be a Jew, however eloquent in true Americanism his life has been, can venture within the walls which Russia has erected against the outside world, even though accredited by a passport from our Government, without having his credentials figuratively torn into shreds and cast defiantly into his face.

As a Jew he might look down upon his persecutors with pity and contempt, and suffer in silence as his ancestors did for centuries. But he is now more than a Jew-he is also an American citizen, and the hand that smites him inflicts a stain on his citizenship. It is not the Jew who is insulted; it is the American people. And the finding of a proper remedy against this degradation is not a Jewish, but an American question. . . .



There is no exception express or implied, in the first or any other article of the Treaty of 1832. Its terms are of universal application. They include, not some, but all of the inhabitants of the high contracting parties. They give the liberty to sojourn and reside within the territories of the respective nations, not to some, but to all of their citizens. There is no distinction of race or color, creed or sex. No discrimination is contemplated or permitted. All Russians are to be admitted here. All Americans are to be admitted there.

If it were suggested by our Government that no Russian subject who is a resident of St. Petersburg or of Moscow, or a member of the Greek Catholic Church, should be accorded the rights and privileges secured by this treaty, we would be regarded as guilty of a gross violation of its letter and its spirit If Russia should declare that no citizens of the United States residing west of the Mississippi or south of the Ohio, should receive the benefits of this treaty, not only the South and West, but our entire country would stand aghast at the dishonor inflicted on the entire nation. If Russia should announce that it would not honor the passport of the United States when held by an Episcopalian or a Presbyterian, a Methodist, or a Roman Catholic, our country would not look upon this breach of treaty obligation as a mere insult to the Episcopalians or the Presbyterians, the Methodists or the Roman Catholics of this country, but would justly treat it as a blow inflicted upon every man who holds dear the title of American citizen.

Though this proposition is so plain that discussion and illustration are alike unnecessary, Russia has persisted in the practice of requiring its consuls within the jurisdiction of the United States to interrogate American citizens as to their race and religious faith, and upon ascertainment thereof to deny to Jews authentication of passports or legal documents for use in Russia. . . .

During the past two years there has been an abundance of well-directed effort to induce Russia, by the ordinary diplomatic channels, to recognize the obligations of its contract. Congress has passed resolutions indicative of the same desire, and of a like recognition of the broad scope of the question at issue. Apparently we are today as far from a solution of this problem, which goes home to every American citizen, as we were thirty years ago.

The painfully slow methods of diplomacy have failed. We, a nation of 100,000,000 Americans, stand at the door of Russia, hat in hand, pleading with it that it shall recognize and perform its contract. With sardonic smile Russia answers: “Not yet.” A nation is but an individual written large. Imagine the patience of a creditor who for thirty years waits upon his debtor and pleads with him at his home for the payment of his debt. The average man would be tempted, under such circumstances, long before the lapse of thirty years, to take such proceedings as would reverse the process and lead his debtor not only to ask for leniency, but to make ample amends.

Does this mean that we should go to war with Russia? Certainly not! War is abhorrent to us. It is brutal, inhuman, cruel. Its horrors fall upon the innocent. Its effects are felt by the entire universe. The mission of America, as well as of Israel, is peace. But there is a simpler, an easier, and an equally effective method of dealing with a nation that insults another; the same method to which a self-respecting civilized man resorts when he is insulted. He does not shoot. He does not commit an assault. He merely ceases to have further relations with the individual who has disregarded the amenities of life. And so with nations. It is within the power of a country situated as ours is, to isolate Russia and to terminate all treaty relations with a Government which fails to recognize the solemnity and the sanctity of its treaty obligations, and that is exactly what should be done without further delay. . . .



But it may be argued that the suspension of commercial relations between the two countries may hurt our trade. I have a higher opinion of the American people than to believe that they are so destitute of idealism, so devoid of a sense of honor, as to regard a matter of this supreme importance with the eyes and souls of mere shopkeepers. However extensive our trade with Russia might be, we could well afford to jeopardize it rather than to have it said that our country rates the dollar higher than it does the man, that it esteems the volume of its trade more than its national dignity. . . .

It may also be said that Russia is about to engage in large undertakings which will enlist American capital, the development of mines, the construction of storehouses for grain, the building of railroads, and that we are imperiling such enterprises by denouncing our existing treaties with Russia. But what of that? Is it not better that we may know in advance what the attitude of Russia is to be toward American citizens before they invest their capital for the development of the resources of Russia, than to lodge complaints after the capital has been invested and promises have been broken? And after all, there are still opportunities in the United States for the profitable employment of adequate capital for the promotion of our own industries, and Central and South America still offer promising fields for the investor.

There are others who will prate of the historic friendship of Russia for America, and the tale will be retold of what Russia did for us during the Revolutionary War and during the Civil War. That fable has been thoroughly analyzed, and the real facts have been demonstrated. But assuming that in the past we may have profited from Russia’s attitude, who is so credulous as to believe that the land of the Czars, the country of absolutism, has been so enamored of freedom, of constitutional government, of Democracy or of Republicanism, as to have acted either from love of us, or of our institutions? Whenever Russia has acted, it has been simply and solely for political expediency. But let us assume that Russia has, from any motive whatsoever, extended to us offices of friendship. Have we not fully requited all of its kindnesses? Was it not through the intervention of President Roosevelt that Russia was extricated from one of the bloodiest and most disastrous wars known to history? The account between the two countries has been fully balanced so far as political favors are concerned.

But there still remains a long account against Russia of broken promises, of violated obligations, of a compact contemned and disregarded, of dishonor inflicted upon our country and its citizens, and unless the virtue of manhood has deserted this Republic, its citizens will no longer patiently witness the mockery of diplomatic procedure, but will insist on a complete abrogation of every treaty now existing between the United States and Russia.


About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.